Romney and the Mormon Moment
In her many
appearances on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney’s wife often echoes the
National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, who quipped last summer that “the only
guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon.” With a cheery
smile, Ann Romney slyly contrasts her 38-year career as her husband’s only
wife to the serial polygamists he’s running against.
Thus have the Romneys set about “showcasing” (as the Boston Globe put
it) the traditional character of their marriage in order to appeal to
“family values” evangelicals who are the Americans most reluctant to vote
for a Mormon presidential candidate.
But despite the recent trial and conviction of polygamist leader Warren
Jeffs and the popular television show “Big Love,” polygamy has not figured
nearly so much in the media’s representations of Mormonism during Romney’s
run for the nomination as another feature of Latter-day Saint marriage
Accompanying Nancy Gibbs’ March 10 article in Time on “Romney’s
Mormon Question” was a large photograph of the candidate’s family with a
caption indicating that when Romney and Ann were wed in 1969, her mother and
father were not permitted to attend the nuptials. The explanation: Ann’s
parents are not Mormons and their daughter’s wedding was held in an LDS
temple where no “gentiles” are allowed.
Mentioned again and again in stories about the Romneys, this restriction
points to what non-Mormon journalists almost always term “secrecy” when they
refer to what goes on in Latter-day Saint temples. They also tend to see
something bizarre in ceremonies that create marriages “for time and
eternity” and “sealings” of children to parents that create eternal
a result, Romney’s ideal family—featuring five picture-perfect sons—has
turned out to be one of several peculiarities that make his faith seem
foreign enough to give him a “Mormon problem.”
Although Mormonism was an issue in his unsuccessful 1994 Massachusetts
senate campaign, Romney managed to serve a term as the governor of
Massachusetts without generating much interest in his religion. As a result,
he and his campaign strategists seem to have been reasonably confident that
the Mormon question would remain in the background during his presidential
run. If so, the extent of their miscalculation is suggested by Google
searches for “Romney and Mormonism” conducted on January 1, 2006 and October
1, 2007—the first one producing 16,000 links and the next 1,410,000. (A
second October 1 search, this one for “Romney and religion,” generated
The Romney campaign was launched at a point when the LDS Church was still
riding the wave of the sensationally successful 2002 Olympic Winter Games in
Salt Lake City. A Newsweek cover story leading up to Games had dubbed
it “The Mormon Moment,” a designation that has gotten considerable play ever
2005, the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches announced that
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“with a reported membership
of 5,503,192”) had risen from the fifth to the fourth largest religious body
in America. The same year, the Library of Congress hosted a major conference
to mark the bicentennial of the birth of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. With
considerable fanfare, Alfred A. Knopf released the first full-scale
biography of Smith in 28 years.
a June 6, 2005 cover story for the Weekly Standard, Terry Eastland
wrote that Mitt Romney might just be the “right guy at the right time” for
the presidency of the United States. After the 2006 midterm elections,
Nevada’s Harry Reid, a convert to Mormonism, became Senate Majority
Leader—the highest public office ever held by a Latter-day Saint.
the Mormon Moment is indeed at hand, how—in an era when presidential
aspirants are expected to discuss their faith commitments with the American
public—should the Mormon Candidate communicate his faith?
an April 9 op-ed in the New York Times, former Newsweek
religion writer Kenneth Woodward recommended that Romney confront his Mormon
problem head on by telling the world—especially the conservative Christian
world—about his religious tradition.
an August 21 cover story in Christian Century, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a
non-Mormon historian of religion who knows Mormonism well, posed a series of
questions that Romney ought to address:
What is Mormonism? Who are the Mormons? How is authority exercised in the
LDS church? Could the LDS hierarchy exercise power through a Mormon
president? Would a Mormon president “toe the line” on moral values, and how
close are those values to the values of the Christian Right? What about
gender roles in this faith system? And, perhaps of greatest interest, how do
Latter-day Saints understand the relationship between church and state?
Thus far, however, while Romney recites, mantra-like, that he is a man of
strong faith, he has declined either to explain what he believes or to share
with the public how his beliefs fit into his life story. Why?
Part of the explanation lies with the nature of Mormon religious practice.
When it comes to worship, Mormonism is both as open as it is possible to be
and as closed. Anyone can attend the Saints’ “Sacrament Meetings” as well as
their Sunday Schools and even their Priesthood and Relief Society meetings.
But LDS temples are open only to those Saints whose worthiness is attested
to by the lay clergyman who presides over their local wards (parishes).
Within the confines of their temples, Saints participate in what they are
convinced are sacred ordinances. The details of these ordinances and the
covenants by which Saints bind themselves to each other in family units must
not be fully described to non-Mormons, for such descriptions would, they
believe, undercut their sacred nature.
notorious example of the difficulty this makes for the candidate is the
matter of the special under-garments that Latter-day Saints wear to
symbolize covenants they made in the temple. This “garments” issue hit the
mainstream media while Romney was still governor of Massachusetts when the
Atlantic published a substantial article about the governor’s
political future titled “The Holy Cow! Candidate.”
Questions about what Bill Maher on HBO and many bloggers now call Romney’s
“magic underpants” obviously seem so inappropriate to Romney that they
sometimes make him lose his cool. “Romney Melts Down/Implodes over
Mormonism” was the headline when Jan Mikelson interviewed him on YouTube.
The truth is that, in not being willing to talk about the ceremonial
undergarments he wears, Romney really is right to insist that he is not
trying to distance himself from his church. For him, as for most
temple-going Mormons, wearing their “garments” is as natural as wearing long
earlocks is for Hasidic Jewish men or never cutting their hair is for women
who belong to certain Holiness movements.
addition to this, Mormonism is simply not easy to explain in the way that
Christianity has been explicable since the days when the Church Fathers
hammered accounts of Jesus and other writings by his followers into a
coherent set of doctrines. Foreswearing a professional clergy or formally
accredited theologians, the Saints have never learned to represent their
beliefs to themselves, much less to the outside world, in systematic form.
(In fact, Mormonism is a restoration movement whose members believe that
their church is the only true church of Jesus Christ. They also believe that
they are the restoration of Israel, and that especially in their temples
they are recreating “the Ancient Order of Things.”)
Finally, it’s important to recognize that Romney is not just any
temple-going Mormon. As a young business executive, he served as bishop of
his church in Cambridge, Mass., and then became president of the larger
Boston “stake,” or diocese.
More than that, as one born “under the covenant,” he is what many Saints of
his generation call a “DNA Mormon.”
His forebears converted to the faith six generations ago in the 1830s, the
very first decade of the Mormon movement. Emigrating from England so that
they could gather with the Saints in Illinois, they quickly learned about
hardship and persecution. After Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, they
joined the trek to the Great Basin, then still Mexican territory.
The extended Romney family had to live in a wagon bed for well over a year
after making the trek, and that same wagon bed is now displayed on the most
famous of all Mormon tourist sites, Temple Square in Salt Lake City, whose
stone wall Mitt’s great-great grandfather helped to build.
a part of its extensive five-part series on Romney, the Boston Globe
described the polygamous branch of the former Massachusetts governor’s
family tree. After the candidate condemned polygamy and its current and
prior practice, the AP, ABC News, Fox News, CNN, Slate Magazine, and
a host of lesser media venues picked up the story that his great-grandfather
had five wives and his great-great grandfather (an apostle in the LDS
Church), a dozen.
The great-grandfather, a faithful lay church administrator, served a term in
prison for polygamous cohabitation. Upon his release, he followed the
direction of church leaders and led his own and many other polygamous
families down to northern Mexico. There they were able to avoid being
indicted and imprisoned under the federal anti-polygamy statutes that
eventually caused the LDS Church to surrender its peculiar marriage practice
in return for Utah statehood.
Most of the large group of Mormons who went to Mexico returned to the U.S.
during the Mexican Revolution that lasted from 1910 till 1921. While the
Romney family was there, however, Mitt’s businessman and politician father,
Michigan governor George Romney, was born in Chihuahua.
This personal background gives Romney a sense of being more than a church
member. He is a part of the restoration of Israel, making his Mormonism as
much an ethnic identity as a religious one for Romney—the way Joe Lieberman
Perhaps paradoxically, this Mormon ethnicity makes it more difficult for him
to talk about his faith and the extent to which his being Mormon is central
to who he is. Ethnic Mormons know Mormonism as “lived religion”—a narrative
about a prophetic revelation and a people’s journey through the wilderness
in which they are completely embedded.
Other religious traditions make exclusive claims to truth, but for ethnic
Mormons, these come with a certain sense of birthright superiority that, out
of politeness, many of them find difficult to articulate.
contrast, Mormon converts tend to see their religious identity as a personal
journey to Jesus that can be shared with others.
Harry Reid, for example, says of the high school teacher who introduced him
to Mormonism, “For the first time in my life, I heard the message of Jesus
Christ.” In his spiritual autobiography Why I Believe, Reid writes
that after 40 years, he and his wife are convinced that joining the LDS
Church was “among the best decisions we ever made.” Mormon friends and
church leaders were effective “because they were shining representatives,
even models of the life of Jesus.”
doubt, LDS converts accept the claims that Joseph Smith was a prophet and
that the Book of Mormon is truly holy scripture. But their emphasis is on
belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For his part, Romney will say that Jesus Christ is his personal savior, but
rather than talk about how his relationship to Jesus fits into his belief
system, he shifts over to “values talk.” To listen to him, Mormonism seem
only tangential to his identity.
Or, as Jonathan Darman and Lisa Miller write in their October 8 Newsweek
cover story, when asked about his faith, he tells of his efforts to mold
his character and personality to make the choices and be a good person. He
does not talk about how Mormonism might figure in how he would make
presidential decisions or policy.
Romney cannot or will not talk about the substance of his religious faith,
he could, as a chorus of commentators have urged, “pull a JFK.” In 1960,
John F. Kennedy went to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association where he
pledged to keep religion out of the Oval Office and to resign the presidency
“if the time should ever come when my office would require me to either
violate my conscience or violate the national interest.”
Such a speech may yet be forthcoming. Whether the evangelical base of the
GOP will buy it is another question.
Just as Romney himself is having to face up to the importance of Mormonism
in his campaign, so is his church having to face up to the fact that the
campaign is not something it can pretend to ignore.
While individual Latter-day Saints have been actively involved in helping
Romney from the outset, especially with financial support, the LDS Church
has kept its distance from his candidacy. Repeatedly, church leaders have
sought to stay out of the fray, emphasizing that while the church encourages
its members to vote, it does not allow its buildings, membership lists, or
other resources to be used for partisan political purposes.
But seeing the reams of misinformation about Mormonism that are reported as
fact, church authorities have decided that it would be best to join the
national conversation. This is critical for the church, for, from a public
relations perspective, the Romney candidacy is no less important than the
2002 Winter Olympics were. It could help bring Mormonism into the nation’s
religious mainstream, or it could make the Saints seem wackier than ever.
According to staffers at the church’s Public Affairs Division, the political
reporters who come to them for information about Mormonism are as
knowledgeable about religious matters as the sports reporters who covered
the Olympics. “I think you could write on a postage stamp what a lot of
political journalists know about these things,” Michael Otterson, the senior
spokesman for the church, told me.
Consequently, the church is starting its own education effort, featuring a
media guide outlining the church’s core beliefs, history, organizational
structure, welfare programs, and related topics. There’s also a 24-hour hot
line for political writers and commentators seeking basic information about
Mormonism on deadline.
addition, the church’s website provides a helpful link to the transcript of
a discussion of “Mormonism and Democratic Politics” that was held by the Pew
Forum in May—by far the most complete and knowledgeable compendium of
information about Mormonism and politics readily available to journalists as
well as the general public.
it politically acceptable to be anti-Mormon today? This question, which
arose during the discussion, was addressed by John Fund in his June 25
Wall Street Journal column. JFK’s speech to the Houston ministers led to
“general agreement [that] a candidate’s religion shouldn’t matter,” Fund
wrote. He then proceeded to reel off a list of attacks on Mormonism by
These included Al Sharpton suggesting that the Latter-day Saints “don’t
believe in God”; one of John McCain’s Iowa county chairmen claiming that the
Mormon Church supports Hamas and treats women no better than does the
Taliban; and the Giuliani campaign forwarding to bloggers Joseph Smith’s
“White Horse” prophecy of a militant Mormon leader arriving in the nick of
time to save the nation when “the Constitution is hanging by a thread.”
be sure, all of these have led to public apologies from the perpetrators.
But out on the evangelical far right, talk show hosts have unapologetically
been posing the issue as: “Can Romney serve two masters? The Mormon Church
vs. the United States of America?” According to televangelist Bill Keller,
“[A] vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.”
Nor is it only in the evangelical community that Romney has his work cut out
for him. According to a Pew survey released in September, fully a quarter of
Americans are reluctant to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. That’s
far fewer than those reluctant to vote for an atheist (61 percent) or a
Muslim (45 percent) but a lot more than for an evangelical (16 percent), Jew
(11 percent), or Catholic (7 percent).
Still, if he’s to make it past the primaries, it’s the evangelicals that
Romney needs to focus on. At the upper intellectual reaches, he can take
advantage of an ongoing dialogue about theology and doctrine between a group
of Latter-day Saint professors from Brigham Young University and evangelical
professors from Fuller Theological Seminary and Baylor University.
But that will not get him down to the grassroots, which still treats as an
authoritative reference work Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults,
a famous account of religions outside the mainstream that lumps
Mormonism in with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age Cults, and the
Unification Church (the “Moonies”).
Romney has been visiting with grassroots leaders like the late Jerry Falwell,
Franklin Graham, Charles Colson, and James Dobson, and (much to the dismay
of numerous Latter-day Saint bloggers) describing his faith in language that
Mormons and evangelicals share—even if the words do not carry quite the same
meaning in both traditions. Yet, as the Washington Monthly’s Amy
Sullivan warned early in 2005, there’s a bifurcation in the
evangelical community between leaders and people in the pews that is deeper
and broader than outsiders realize. And it’s the people in the pews who will
be casting the votes to choose the Republican standard bearer.
the campaign goes forward, it’s evident that Romney’s candidacy has called
into question the degree to which the American public has come to expect its
would-be presidents to make their religious convictions part of their claim
to electoral support. One of the more striking dissenting views comes from
conservative pundit and talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, whose hagiographic A
Mormon in the White House? has made him Romney’s de facto
the book, Hewitt questions the legitimacy of asking any candidate about his
or her religious beliefs and how they are put into practice. “If Mr. Romney
is perceived to have lost his bid for the presidency because of his
religious beliefs,” Hewitt writes, “it will prove a disastrous turning point
for all people of faith in public life.” Whatever one makes of that
prognostication, there is good reason to think that, for better or worse,
the Romney campaign will make a significant contribution to the history of
religion and American presidential politics.